Monday, June 12, 2006

Fort Sumner, New Mexico

When I mention to Donald Sweet, proprietor of the Billy the Kid Museum, that the Old Fort Sumner Museum doesn't mention what actually happened at Fort Sumner—namely, that 3000 people died there—he looks at me crossly.

"It's all history," he says, and I think I might be the biggest troublemaker Fort Sumner's seen in years. On the other hand, the Billy the Kid Museum giftshop is also the site of my second Confederate flag sighting, on a bumper sticker that reads "Never Say Die."

Fort Sumner's preocccupation is Billy the Kid, whose "authentic 'real'" grave is at Old Fort Sumner. The town of Fort Sumner contains the Billy the Kid Museum; the Billy the Kid Country Inn; The Billy the Kid Tombstone Race ("The World's Richest Tombstone Race"); and the Billy the Kid Road, which leads from US 60/84 to the Old Fort. Billy the Kid makes for good tourist business, obviously, more so than the real fort.

The thing about Billy the Kid is that, historically, he's not that interesting. He's only more interesting than the actual Fort Sumner if by more interesting we mean that everyone has heard his name. He was a ranch hand in New Mexico at a time when killing people was the norm; he killed people. Though he did once escape from jail, his story just doesn't have the panache of Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, or (late) Bonnie and Clyde.

Fort Sumner is captivating, but only if you can find information on it. The Indian internment is memorialized at the Bosque Redondo, which is the name of the (former) reservation near Fort Sumner. Bosque Redondo is three miles away from the Old Fort, and if you don't know what it is, well, you don't know what it is. A brown sign points the way, but you have to be going anyway.

The town of Fort Sumner tends to ignore this history, no matter what Donald Sweet might say. Everything else tends to be celebrated, from Old Fort Days to William S. "Deak" Parsons, the Atomic Admiral. In retrospect, I'm curious how much the children of Fort Sumner learn in school, whether the prevailing attitude is more pride than honesty, or shame.

One final irony: for all the hubbub about Billy the Kid's grave, we don't actually know where it is. A flood came though many years ago and scattered all the grave markers, so where the tombstone is now is just a best guess. If you wanted to resurrect Billy, you wouldn't actually know which body was his.

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